When DAMWON Gaming arrived in Shanghai for the 2020 League of Legends World Championship, there were many questions surrounding the team, some beyond what they had been able to prove on the Rift through their gameplay.
Would top laner Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon recover in time from his emergency pneumothorax surgery that had delayed his arrival in China? Was Kim "Canyon" Geon-bu the best jungler in the world? Could Heo "ShowMaker" Su perform just as well at worlds as he did during South Korea's LoL Champions Korea season?
And perhaps most importantly: How much did DAMWON's dominant summer performance in LCK matter when the region had been on a downward turn since 2018? How should we judge the strength of DAMWON in relation to the perceived strength of their region?
DAMWON have systematically dismantled perceptions of their team, and to some extent, the strength of South Korea as a whole, as they have razed through the world championship relatively unscathed. If they're not a harbinger of South Korea's return to dominance (something that will never happen again on the scale with which they were ahead of the rest of the world from 2013-2017), they're at least a seedling, now maturing into a fully grown tree out of the still-fertile soil of the LCK.
The LCK may not be the best region in the world from top to bottom, but they likely have the best team in the world right now, and DAMWON will try to prove that at 6 a.m. ET on Saturday in Pudong Stadium.
The fall of the LCK from its position as the default best League of Legends region in the world has weighed heavily on the minds of South Korean players, fans, staff and the general League of Legends community. It was even noted in the LCK's initial call for franchise partners, citing South Korea's past dominance, as the league ended their introductory statement with, "We will adopt the long-term partnership model in LCK in 2021. And we will bring back the glory."
The so-called slow South Korean style of play, favored by teams like SK Telecom T1 and Samsung Galaxy/Gen.G, stopped being en vogue around late 2018, when the removal of Tracker's Knife led to a faster, more aggressive style playing around the loss of vision and information on the Rift.
South Korean teams were slow to adjust and fell behind in tempo, leading to disastrous results in international competition.
"I believe the South Korean teams struggled because as the meta changed, the playstyle also needed to change," DAMWON coach Lee "Zefa" Jae-min said. "And the teams lacked in this."
DAMWON are not slow, nor are they afraid to fight. But, DAMWON players and coaches said, it's the team's overall versatility that makes this roster special and successful.
"We do have an aggressive playstyle," Canyon said. "But we can also win the game playing more defensively. We are a team that has diverse win conditions."
Zefa described DAMWON's approach simply: "A playstyle that hits the bull's eyes." This is a team that always hit its mark, and DAMWON will hope to do so one more time to bring South Korea back to the pinnacle of League of Legends for the first time since the all-South Korean final of SK Telecom T1 vs. Samsung Galaxy in 2017.
A year after that final, no South Korean teams had made it past the quarterfinals of a world championship held on their home soil. It was the first time South Korea was unrepresented in at least the semis since 2011, when South Korea didn't yet have a League of Legends server and could send no teams to the world championship.
In between the fervent whispers of roster rumors and assurance from LCK fans that the younger, more aggressive Griffin would avenge them in 2019, one other team name kept coming up as a quick end to the LCK's presumably short-lived demise: DAMWON Gaming. More specifically, jungler Canyon was cited by then-Cloud9 jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen and other Western teams at worlds as their most formidable opponent in scrimmages.
Two years later, DAMWON carry the weight of the LCK on their shoulders, not only as a finalist but as a heavily favored one against the LoL Pro League's third-seeded Suning. This position does not worry DAMWON in the slightest. At the finals press conference, ShowMaker was asked whether the team's admitted stage nerves in 2019 would come back to haunt DAMWON in front of their first live audience this year in the worlds finals.
ShowMaker's simple answer was that their nerves were all in the past.
"All five players on our team have a large champion pool," Canyon said. "And any of the five players can carry the game. This has been an advantage for us."
DAMWON's flexibility and known pocket picks have allowed them to effectively draft freely throughout 2020 worlds in a metagame that already suits them perfectly. This forces opponents to either have the ability to play the same picks, or use a ban on them.
"The meta was similar to the meta we have played with during the summer split," Canyon said, "so we just focused on expanding our champion pool."
If there's one identifiable advantage that LPL teams have had in winning the past two world championships, it's that the meta at the time suited them perfectly.
Now it's DAMWON's, and by extension the LCK's, turn.